Optimism drowned

All of Huddersfield Town’s familiar failings were on display in a damaging, disheartening defeat played against the backdrop of a biblical deluge which lent an additional layer of gloom.

The frailty of a shallow squad was exposed, a stuttering, slow start was clinically punished and a first half littered with basic errors, many unforced, proved to be the undoing of a side which struggled to replicate the intensity of recent performances until a late surge nearly earned a point.

Missing the huge influence of the injured Whitehead, Town were defensively vulnerable while lacking a clinical edge up front and the weight of expectation seemed too heavy for some shoulders – seasoned Town followers could have warned David Warner that a surge of interest usually precedes anti climax.

From the kick off, Town failed to gain any control or possession and Bristol City completely turned the tables on the home team by pressing high and hard to force errors, and a cheap free kick given away by the increasingly vulnerable Hudson was whipped in for Fodjia to open the scoring. The delivery was excellent and only needed the slightest of contact but the lack of defensive organisation contributed.

A quick response was needed and was provided by a superb turn and run by Joe Lolley – easily the best home player throughout – who released Wells to be upended in the box. The lifeline would have changed the complexion of the game, but Huws weak effort was easily saved and a Bristol player somehow got to the rebound before the Welshman to clear.

On such moments do Championship games hinge, and an uphill task got much steeper as the home side’s lack of cohesion and errant passing encouraged a strong City side to impose themselves far too easily and enabled them to create panic at regular intervals before yet another unnecessary free kick was given away by Hogg.

This time, another practised free kick bamboozled the home defenders allowing a completely unmarked Flint (who had also been the first player to the penalty rebound) to head home with ease.

By the end of the half, Town were fortunate to be only 2 down as the visitors contrived to miss a couple of straightforward chances while their own fortunes in attack showed little sign of change despite several blocked and saved shots from Wells, Lolley and Chilwell.

It was perhaps expecting too much of Hogg to replicate Whitehead’s crucial role in the team and he had a horrible first half. Clearly not up to speed after a lengthy lay off, it could also be argued that he isn’t suited to a sitting brief and certainly didn’t possess Whitehead’s instinctive reading of the game and provided an ineffective defensive shield along with poor distribution.

Hogg wasn’t the only problem. Chilwell is a highly promising player but, forgivable for an 18 year old, had a day to forget on the whole and last week’s match winner, Scannell, found cul de sac after cul de sac as City’s left back contained him very effectively once he got to the point of delivery. Paterson was largely anonymous and withdrawn at half time in favour Miller – a stark and sobering reminder of the threadbare resources available to the new manager.

Soaked, literally and figuratively, Town trudged off to some boos from a disgruntled home support who had been expecting a major leap forward against the perceived weaker threat of a fellow struggler but witnessed solid, occasionally inventive opponents deservedly in front and precious little evidence of the lauded new style of play.

The second half proved more encouraging without dispelling any of the fears surrounding a team with too many flaws to be disguised by increased fitness, better ball retention and pressing. The sight of Miller being thrown on to change the fortunes of the game was emblematic of the serious difficulties Wagner will have to resolve in the next few weeks – both immediately to garner points in what should be a fruitful period and longer term with signings to inject better quality in the key positions of centre half and centre forward (a new right back is looking increasingly urgent, too).

While Miller is a lower league journeyman at best these days and his first contribution was a comically wild shot which went for a throw, he did provide an increased physicality to give the Bristol defence a different, if far from unsolvable, problem.

Employing a standard 4-1-4-1 formation and reigning in their attacking ambition, Cotterill – an experienced and solid manager – set up his team to frustrate the home side and was largely successful.

Town did, however, have openings. An early Chilwell effort went narrowly wide and attempts by Miller, Scannell and Wells were blocked, while the impressive Lolley hit the foot of the post with a good effort.

Surging runs by Scannell down the right, however, invariably ended in disappointment – he was either forced in to playing the ball back to Smith or hitting the first defender with attempted crosses. The one occasion he got in to a good free space, he over hit a ball in when a low trajectory could have found Wells in a replay of the second goal last week.

Dempsey, who had replaced the injured Huws in the first half, added energy but insufficient penetration while Lolley continued to cause danger with his running at the opposition but the increasing air of desperation in face of resolute visitors created more errors than danger.

Chilwell’s subdued performance rendered the left side largely redundant and increased the predictability of Scannell and Smith trying to engineer chances on the right, while the unsubtle presence of Miller was mostly dealt with easily by the visitors.

The game changed for the better when Bunn replaced Wells. The striker had worked hard in the first half and brought out a good save from Fielding in the second (Scannell was unable to control his follow up shot) but was injured while trying to gain a foul which didn’t fool another generally poor and inconsistent referee.

Bunn seemed to relish his opportunity and added spark to hitherto predictable forward play and his turn and return pass should have brought a goal for Dempsey who fired wide from a good position when he really should have scored.

Taking matters in to his own hands, Bunn then received a pass from Lolley, created space with a nice turn and smashed in a great goal from 30 yards in to the top corner.

A superb goal gave some hope of salvaging a point and it should have been gained when Miller’s presence forced a break in the area only for Dempsey to fire straight at the keeper, and the defeat was confirmed.

An equaliser would not have disguised the deepening problems facing Town’s new boss. The loss of Huws compounds the damaging absence of Whitehead and his leadership, goals are scarce despite opportunities being regularly created and a back four with Hudson and Smith is always going to be vulnerable.

Hogg fared a little better in the second half and it is to be hoped that game time will improve his sharpness and decision making, but he doesn’t seem suited to the role so effectively played by Whitehead – with Lynch hopefully returning soon, Wagner may have to change the way we protect a less vulnerable back four which should improve if Hudson is demoted to the bench.

For large swathes of the game, Town’s whole didn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts as they had done in the first 3 performances under the German. With weaknesses in crucial areas, a drop in standards and performance is much more likely to be punished and the need for an injection of his own players was starkly exposed.

In their defence, Town were not helped by the disruption of Huws coming off – and even more handicapped by his poor penalty which would have changed the game’s dynamics coming so soon after going behind.

If a silver lining is to be gleaned from a soggy, disappointing afternoon it may be the emergence of Lolley as the player we have all wanted him to be. He caused problems whenever he had the ball but tempered his enthusiasm with better timing of his passing for others to be given the opportunity of capitalising on the space he creates.

Apart from his eye catching run and pass preceding the penalty, he played a precision pass to Wells in the first half which brought a good save from City’s keeper and his was the last contribution with a simple pass to Bunn before the goal. A constant menace, his potential is frightening and he seems to revel in the freedom Wagner has given him.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge a good win for Bristol. They were very good in the first half and really should have finished Town off by the break, and while they rode their luck a little in the second period they defended stoutly and frustratingly to pick up the points which took them above their hosts.

With injuries and a short turnaround to cope with, Wagner has to come up with a revised plan to take 3 vital points from another relegation rival on Tuesday to banish the idea that St Andrews was just yet another false dawn.

(I won’t be there to witness it, though. Florida and better Christmas weather beckons – my next report will be against Bolton. If they still exist)

Come together

As Desmond battered away at Cumbria and Scotland, England’s second city was blown away by another powerful, energy packed performance by a rapidly transforming Huddersfield Town side roared on by a support brimming with belief in the style imposed on a formerly dispiriting and dispirited squad who seem to revel in the freedom granted by sheer hard work and excellent planning.

Even allowing for occasional individual errors, every single player contributed to a comfortable and thoroughly deserved first victory under what is beginning to look like inspired management from a man (and his team) settling quickly and easily in to Yorkshire life, and an equally brave and bold appointment by Dean Hoyle.

The progress made with substantially the same players whose inferiority complex under the previous manager was palpable has been extraordinary. Comfortable in possession, relentless out of it and coherent as a unit, this first win for Wagner is a massive step forward for what remain evolving strategies but which improve with practice and phenomenally increased fitness levels.

As each game passes, the team develops personality. Aside from the immense and incomparable Whitehead – who has been magnificent all season – we now have genuine heroes to follow. They may not be the best players we have ever seen (though don’t put it past this bloke making them that), but the effort and teamwork is something to behold.

There isn’t a great deal of fancy stuff – though Paterson’s skill to release Huws on the wing early in the second half was worth the, very reasonable, entrance price – it is more about supporting the player with the ball, perpetual movement and a relentless error inducing pursuit of the opposition.

While never quite reaching the heights of some of last week’s play against far superior opposition, the debilitating fear which seemed to infect our pre Wagner play has virtually disappeared and replaced with a confidence and occasional swagger which you just know is going to become a feature of our immediate future.

For all the bad luck endured in the first two defeats – particularly last week – the stars aligned nicely for a trip to a team suffering from significant injuries and evidently low in confidence after what may well have been a gravity defying start to the season. Rowett has done a good job reviving the Blues since Lee Clark’s struggling tenure, but there may be bumps on the road they are keeping on to the end of if this game is anything to go by.

A goal inside the first minute was a mighty help, but it epitomised Town’s new philosophy as a sweeping move from the left back position, involving two decisive passes and an excellent low ball from the impressive (at last!) Scannell was dummied by Wells for Lolley to bundle home a little scruffily.

What marks out the goal was the comfort in possession of Cranie and Chilcot at the start, Wells’ defence splitter to Scannell and Lolley’s determination to run pretty much the length of the pitch after his initial ball to Wells from halfway in his own half. Wagner must have been purring at the pitch perfect execution of the ideas he has been installing in the players in his few short weeks in charge.

The boost of the goal, which must have released a lot of tension, allowed Town to take control of the game, dominate possession and create more moments of danger for the home defence, with Lolley coming closest to adding a second when another great ball from Scannell found him alone only for his side footed attempt to deflect off a defender.

Birmingham rarely threatened though Steer (solid throughout) had to make a smart if routine save at his near post and was as relieved as the rest of us when a rare moment of midfield sloppiness allowed the home side to counter quickly down their right only for Brock-Madsen to poke wide from close range.

Otherwise, any threat from the Blues was elegantly thwarted by Whitehead’s uncanny game reading as the player of the season to date cruised through another first class performance until, worryingly, a second half injury curtailed his day. Pray for his recovery!

As was the case last week, Town hurried the opposition in to unwise and ineffective long balls with Wells and Paterson working tirelessly up front to force errors. Throughout the game, the visitors deprived their hosts of space and time, rarely loosening their grip on a team with pace but little guile.

The second half followed a similar pattern, though Town’s share of possession decreased. Their resolve did not and a solid defensive performance was only let down when Toral found space in the box only to fire straight at Steer, who blocked. Otherwise, the home side were comfortably contained and Town’s counter attacks were threatening but not executed clinically enough until the irrepressible Scannell made a strong run down the right, shrugging off challenges before feeding Wells to finish the game off from close range. It was a well deserved goal for the front man who had worked tirelessly without much reward until his drought was finally broken.

Scannell himself had threatened to double the lead but could only collide with the far post following excellent work by Paterson and Huws.

A late Paterson effort which was deflected wide following a good run by substitute Carayol (who provided an encouraging cameo going forward if a little suspect defensively) would have added gloss to a very good day, but Town had to see out 6 minutes of injury time – fairly comfortably as it transpired.

While I refuse to resort to calling the revival a “journey”, Wagner grasped the zeitgeist of the travelling support at the end as he insisted that all players came over to show their appreciation. He knew, as we did, that while there is a lot of work to be done (the performance was encouraging but far from perfect) this was an important moment for everyone involved.

He knew last week that the fans appreciated the efforts of him and his team and knows that we also have a part to play with patience and encouragement – while we can be a dour bunch at times (not altogether without reason!), supporters know effort and execution when they see it, and we are definitely seeing it.

The last time Town won 2-0 away in this division stretches all the way back to Elm Park in March 1998 (fun facts brought to you by Daniel Gee) and it is with not a little hope that this one is the harbinger of some very good times ahead.

As for performances; Whitehead barely needs further deserved praise and his recovery is vital, Chilcot shone in a solid defence, Paterson added flair and movement, Scannell was at his unplayable best at times and contributed hugely to a welcome clean sheet, Nahki’s hard work and much improved general play was rewarded with a much needed goal and Steer was a solid and comforting presence throughout.

But this was, above all, a team effort and the supporters felt part of it – loud, encouraging and increasingly enthused, it won’t be long before this new brand of football encourages back the many who have fallen by the wayside through the numbing struggles since we arrived at this level.

Finally, and an indication that Wagner won’t be following accepted wisdom, Miller came on as a late substitute. Now if he can transform Ishmael, he really is the Messiah. Would you put it past him?